Parkinson’s disease

The following essay was written by a woman with Parkinsons Disease...

If you read the medical definition of Parkinson's, it sounds like a drawn out oxymoron. Parkinson's is a degenerative neurological disease characterized by involuntary movements and lack of movement. What?

I like to think of Parkinson's as a communications problem. My brain is saying one thing and my body is doing something else.

It reminds me of a boy I knew in high school. He had an older car, a fixer upper. This car seemed to have a mind of its own. One day, you would turn on the radio and the headlights would come on. The next day, you would turn on the wipers and the horn would blow or the turn signals would come on. It seemed like gremlins were re-wiring the car while he slept. It drove him crazy. He never knew what was going to happen when he got in the car to drive to school in the morning. Every weekend, he would search under the hood for the problem and find nothing. No blown fuses, no burned wires, everything looked kosher.

Then one day he saw some seeds on the floorboard. That's strange, he thought. The car was closed up tight and locked. Next day he found some more. He did some digging and found that a squirrel had been nesting inside his dash. Scrambling around all night and sneaking out in the morning. This was the cause of his electrical problems, seeds, twigs, pieces of trash all hidden behind the dash.

Parkinson's is a lot like that squirrel in the dash, messing around so you don't know what will happen when you try to blow your horn.

~Posted by Bev Ribaudo on August 06, 2011 to Parkinson’s Disease Foundation,

The “squirrel in the dash” as described by PD patient Bev Ribaudo is the decay and death of nerve cells in the brain that normally produce a neurotransmitter chemical called dopamine. As a neurotransmitter, dopamine is critical for sending messages between the body and brain about muscle activity and movement. As Bev described, without the dopamine to act as a messenger, “My brain is saying one thing and my body is doing something else.” This dopamine deficiency can cause tremors and shaking, movement problems, and stiffness in limbs. For the actor Michael J. Fox, his first symptom of young-onset PD was the uncontrolled shaking of his little finger.

PD affects men and women, usually after age 60. There is no cure for PD although symptoms can be treated with pharmaceutical drugs. Neuroactive plant chemicals can impact the communication that occurs in the nervous system. Caffeine shows some promise in helping prevent or slow the progression of PD. Researchers are also exploring how herbs such as gingko, cowhage, and brahmi can help treat the disease. Some exciting current research focuses on the potential power of fava beans in treating PD and its symptoms.

A common drug used to treat PD contains the chemical levodopa, which is converted into dopamine in the body. Other medications used to treat PD either mimic dopamine in the brain, increase the release of dopamine, or slow down the metabolism of dopamine so that it stays around longer.

Fava bean
Fava beans (Vicia faba) are an edible plant in the legume family. The entire fava plant contains levodopa, the chemical that is converted within the body into dopamine. Current research shows that when a person eats fresh fava beans, the level of levodopa in their blood increases. This increase of levodopa can help PD patients—especially those with mild symptoms—experience an improvement in control over their movement and muscle activity. While more research needs to be conducted to fully understand the potential beneficial use of fava beans, it is exciting for PD patients that a natural, delicious, readily-available food may provide therapeutic benefits.

The link between caffeine and shaky hands, and between fava beans and Parkinson’s disease, are just two examples of plants with neuroactive properties that may be useful in treating neurological disorders. In order for researchers to discover plants with neuroactive properties, they must test these chemicals on animals as a way to determine their likely effect on humans. 


Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson Research

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